Oregon’s Coastal Playground is Serious About Business

Van Weelden

Florence positions itself as Oregon’s premier coastal community with a bounty of activities and a surge in business opportunities.

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A funny thing happens when people visit Florence—they tend not to leave.

This was the case for Megan Messmer, who lived all over Oregon before visiting Florence. She’s now the City Project Manager and has no plans on leaving. “Once I met the community, I fell in love with the city,” she said. “You’ll hear that story over and over.”

PanoHistoric Old Town Florence is home to great food, art, entertainent, and business opportunities right on the Suislaw River.

This sentiment is reflected in the city’s media accolades: Expedia awarded Florence as “The Most Beautiful Town in America”; USA Today ranked it second in “Best Small Towns in the Northwest” and “Best Small Towns in America for Adventure”; Flights.com named it one of “8 Coolest Cities You Must Experience for Yourself.”

This positive recognition has boosted business in the area: though tourism is currently the backbone of Florence’s economy, providing 1900 jobs and generating more than $136.9 million of income for the community, the city is beginning to attract more diverse businesses, especially ones who value quality of life factors.

With all of this recognition and activity, the question begs to be answered: What makes Florence so special?

“You’ll have to experience it to believe it.”

105 379 1506480512062 hecetaheadlighthousesmallNearby Heceta Head Lighthouse is among the most photo-graphed in the nation.

The immediate answer for Bettina Hannigan includes Florence’s people, dynamic business climate, burgeoning food and art communities, and outdoor adventures. Yet underneath all those, she said, the magic is in the air and sand itself.

“There’s no fresher air than what comes in off the Pacific Ocean. And we have the most pristine sand in the world. There’s no dirt in it at all,” said Hannigan, the Executive Director for the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce.

This was a major draw for Lon Beale, world-famous sandboarder, who opened the world’s first sandboarding park in Florence (Sand Master Park). His company produces the world’s top-selling sandboards and regularly hosts international competitions, with many being aired on ESPN. Adventure seekers flock to Florence for some of the nation’s best sand dunes for ATV and dune buggy rides, sandboarding, hiking, and fat-tire biking. Other popular activities—especially for those seeking tranquility—include fishing, crabbing, and clamming.

AirRZR4 Duo ODNRA FlorenceA17 6326The Oregon Dunes Recreation Area offers a mix of thrills, adventure, and natural wonder

Geographically speaking, the sand dunes and uncrowded beaches are the biggest distinction between Florence and other coastal cities, and one offering of its diverse natural beauty. Contributing to this diversity are its old growth forests, the Siuslaw River, North America’s largest sea cave (home to hundreds of seals and sea lions), and especially—promise you won’t tell anyone—15 secluded lakes that are nearly impossible to find without local guidance.

This diversity ensures a suitable activity for everyone—windsurfing or kiteboarding on the ocean, peaceful, forested hikes culminating at the iconic Heceta Head Lighthouse, horseback rides along the beach during sunset, and strolls in the historic Old Town district, an area lined with art galleries, boutique shopping, and local restaurants. The biggest treat? Occasionally, a family of orcas will swim far enough up the Siuslaw River, which flows past Old Town, and can be seen from the town’s sidewalks.

It’s no wonder the Florence area is known as “Oregon’s Coastal Playground.”

Perhaps the most popular excursion in Florence are the sand rail rides (similar to super-charged dune buggies). Professional drivers skirt the 300-foot high sand dunes at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, providing rollicking fun for all ages (Hannigan brings her longtime friend, a woman now in her 80s, who cites it as her favorite activity in Florence). “We get more than 14,000 calls per year at our Visitor Center asking all sorts of questions,” said Hannigan. “We just say, ‘you’ll have to experience it to believe it’. Then they visit and they go, ‘I get it now’. Then, more and more often, they move here and bring or start their small business, too.”sandborderSandboarding is an international sport with deep roots in Florence—and is fun for families.

Also offered is a year-round calendar of events including the Rhododendron Festival (heading into its 112th year); a selection of restaurants serving dishes locally sourced from surf and turf; two Scottish-style golf courses; and vintage biplane rides over the cliffs, dunes, and waves.

“When you go from the forest, to the sand, to the river and to the whales, no amount of talking can do it justice,” said Hannigan, “It’s an overwhelming emotion—something you have to experience for yourself.”

Florence is Open for Business
Though Florence offers many aspects of paradise, the limited number of living wage jobs and access to affordable housing had been barriers to prospective Florence residents in the past, especially those hoping to raise a family.

This narrative is changing rapidly. A forward-thinking mayor, city council, and city manager have made housing and economic development the prime focus for Florence. The Council has initiated partnerships and major development projects to further promote Florence as fertile ground for both new and growing businesses.
downtownHistoric Old Town Florence is full of charming galleries, shops, and restaurants.

One notable partnership is with Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN Oregon), based in Eugene, which has committed resources to help launch and sustain Florence’s start-ups. Other partnerships include the Small Business Development Center , Lane Community College, the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce, and the South Coast Development Council.

“Having links to these entrepreneurial ecosystems and mentorship networks is invaluable,” said Jesse Dolin, the City’s Economic Development Catalyst and himself a local start-up founder. “Now, people living in this coastal community have the same access to business resources and support as those in urban areas.”

One company taking advantage is Top Hydraulics, a mostly-web based business who orders high-end hydraulic parts and ships them all over the world (an operation also made possible by the City’s recently installed fiber optic cables). The company moved to Florence in 2016, and chose the city for both its healthy lifestyle and opportunity for growth. “We get a good balance of quality of life in Florence, with much thanks to the City for being so involved in advancing itself,” co-founder Klaus Witte said in an interview with The Siuslaw News.

top HyTop Hydraulics chose Florence for quality of life and business infrastructure.

This advancement also includes major improvements to the City’s infrastructure. Most significant is ReVision Florence, a streetscape design project which will transform the Highway 101 corridor with public art installations, gateways, landscaping, and added sidewalks and benches. Slated for completion in 2019, ReVision Florence will hopefully encourage passing tourists to stop and explore the city and patronize the diverse multitude of shops, restaurants, and unique lodgings.

Businesses also have access to Florence’s greatest treasure: its community. Being a nationally-recognized retirement destination has created an active volunteer community of varied and successful big-market talent. Retirees regularly offer their time and mentorship to local businesses. “By coming here, you have the support of an entire community that wants to see you thrive,” said Dolin. “If you have the seeds, we’ll bring the water and the sunshine.”

A Big Market Facility Hiding in a Small Town
One seed sprung fully to life is the Florence Events Center, which was developed largely through communal efforts.

To start development, the community raised $1 million over a 10-year span. During the planning phase, said members traveled to event centers all over the region, asking venues what worked well and what they wished they had. This feedback informed the FEC’s design of a 21,000 square foot facility, 8,000 of which is multi-purpose meeting space, and includes a 450-seat state-of-the-art performance hall, a lobby, an executive board room, and a multi-purpose conference room.

portraitFlorence Events Center director, Kevin Rhodes, welcomes conferences and shows.
“The planning committee certainly did its homework when they built this,” said Kevin Rhodes, the FEC’s Director of 17 years. Rhodes managed a performing arts center in Southern California before moving to Florence. “[The FEC’s] versatile design allows it to be a combination of things, beyond just events and entertainment.” The configurable space can host weddings, conferences, trade shows, corporate and executive retreats, business meetings, even memorial services.

Rhodes says the FEC puts on around 400 events per year, and attracts world-class performers who pack halls around the world but have yet to become household names in the US. The facility also hosts critically-acclaimed theater, ballet, and symphonic performances. The six-person staff is supported by a robust volunteer community of more than 50 members, many of whom have been active since the FEC’s opening.

Having such help allows Rhodes and his team to provide intimate, personalized service. Aware of the stresses for event planners, the FEC staff makes the planning process as seamless as possible. For example, when people book the space for conferences, banquets, or trade shows, staff will construct a detailed layout for the event, using customized event software, and share it with the client for approval. This way, the client knows exactly what the space will look like when they arrive. Often, he says, the client will continue using that layout for future occasions. Once the event begins, Rhodes has on-site technical support and a dedicated staff for handling issues.

To entice more conferences, executive retreats, and events, the FEC has invested more than $100,000 in technical upgrades—including a new HD digital projector, new screens, state-of-the-art audio systems, and switched from incandescent to LED lighting. On-site catering is available and can prepare customized meals for all group sizes and dietary needs. Rhodes also partners with top local hotels for two- and three-day events.

“When people attend or host a conference at the Florence Events Center, we consistently hear them say, ‘What a great facility for a small community. It’s very accessible, technically current, and the service is amazing,” said Rhodes. “ When you combine a great facility in a great community with all the fun Florence has to offer, you’re going to have a great event.”

Siuslaw Sunrise FishingTranquil early mornings on the Siuslaw river yield salmon, trout, sturgeon, and more.

A City in Motion
On Florence’s surface is beautiful shopping, an abundance of activities, breathtaking natural scenery and a host of events and restaurants that have earned it the title of “Oregon’s Coastal Playground.” But the motor that drives the city, the added touch of warmth to every experience, is that which makes Florence most special: its people.

Florence’s people are who help turn a visit into a lifelong memory, who see that businesses thrive, who give money and time so long-awaited projects can come to fruition. Its the people who allow Florence to flourish and prosper, to attract the attention of national publications, to hold a sense of magic that enthralls those who visit, and to add momentum to a town all are proud to call, “Oregon’s premier coastal community”.

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